August 12, 2012
We’ve been looking at some of the wider possibilities for travel beyond New York City. Last week we began by exploring the inspiration for F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, with a trip along the Long Island Gold Coast. This week we’re catching the Adirondack train through the heart of rural upstate New York, on a scenic journey from New York City to Montréal.
In Part One we looked at the train journey through the Hudson River Valley, past the foothills of the Adirondack Mountains and along the western shore of Lake Champlain. Today we’re looking at the fascinating city that lies at the end of the line – Montréal.
It takes no longer than a few minutes to realise that Montréal is something special. An uplifting combination of urbane Euro-charm and North American positivity and bluster, the city parades its cultural and artistic largess with an intoxicating confidence. While it might seem unlikely that the Gallic and North American influences rub shoulders with each other so merrily – and that’s not to say there has never been friction – the overall impression for the first-time visitor is one of heady optimism and a genuinely authentic mix of contrasts.
Wherever you go in Montréal there’s evidence of a strong civic pride, from the scrubbed cobbled streets and flower-bedecked squares of atmospheric Vieux-Montréal to the city’s glittering commercial downtown, landscaped parks and dynamic immigrant neighbourhoods. Here is the world’s third largest French-speaking metropolis outside of Paris and Kinshasa, and this combined with a cosmopolitan mélange of other identities – British, Greeks, Jews, Italians, Caribbeans, Chinese to name a few – makes it the most culturally exhilarating city in Canada.
Montréal packs a heavyweight tourist punch. You can’t hope to see everything in a short visit – there are just far too many distractions – but a couple of days or long weekend will give you an opportunity to experience the major highlights.
Vieux Montréal (Old Montréal) is where most visitors begin, and if you never left this part of the city it would be hard to believe you were in North America at all. The historic core is fronted by the St. Lawrence River and the Old Port, with Montréal’s oldest street, rue Saint Paul, running parallel a block or so back from the water. Here’s where you’ll find some of the city’s prettiest buildings, many of which house a blossoming collection of boutique hotels, art galleries, designer boutiques, pavement cafes and late night bars. The wide busy plaza of Place Jacques-Cartier dissects the action from the waterfront up to the City Hall.
Whatever you do, don’t miss dipping inside the Notre-Dame Basilica, considered by many (especially Montréalers) to have the most beautiful interior of any church in North America. Built between 1824 and 1829, the church is a masterpiece of Gothic Revival architecture, with a staunchly modern chapel, Notre-Dame-du-Sacré-Coeur, at the rear.
Parc Jean-Drapeau is the most visited in the city and encompasses two islands in the St. Lawrence river, ÃŽle Notre-Dame and ÃŽle Sainte-Hélne. The former is the home of Canada’s Grand Prix circuit and the Montréal Casino; the latter best known for the La Ronde amusement park, though both are also full of walking trails and flower gardens. Montréal’s most prominent green space is the Parc du Mont-Royal, the work of Central Park designer Frederick Law Olmsted. The all-season park has leafy hikes, lake pedalos and cycle paths for summer days; ice-skating, toboganning and cross-country skiing trails for the winter. The view from its Kondiaronk lookout over downtown is one of the best in the city – the mount, such as it is, can be ascended in around 25 minutes from the entrance on Avenue des Pins.
Downtown Montréal sits between the river and the Mount. Its main commercial drags rue Sainte-Catherine and rue Sherbrooke are magnets for big brand and label-focused shoppers, and the latter is also home to the Montréal Museum of Fine Arts and the McCord Museum. This is the heart of the city; an urban playground of pedestrianised hubs and squares where Montréal shows off its apparently endless calendar of festivals and events throughout the year, from winter’s illuminating Montréal en Lumire in February to the showcase Montréal Jazz, International Circus Arts and Just For Laughs festivals of the summer.
Exploring Montréal’s culinary heritage is one of the best ways to better understand the city. Its roots may go back to France, but successive waves of newcomers have created a diverse gastronomy that runs the gamut of immigrant cuisine, from the humble bagel (a Montréal speciality best sampled at Fairmount Bagel in multicultural Mile End) to the delectable delis of Little Italy and its mega-sized, open-air Jean-Talon Market, to numerous internationally-acclaimed restaurants of every conceivable stripe. For a real insight – with some blow-your-mind tastings thrown in – book a foodie walking tour with Montréal Food Tours.
For more Montréal specialities, head to Smoke’s Poutinerie on Bishop Street for a sampling of the famous Quebecois chips ‘n curds delicacy. In Old Montréal make a beeline for light and airy Le Cartet for a stylish breakfast or brunch, and don’t miss a hot Cubain lunchtime panini at Olive et Gourmando.
Try Lémeac, L’Express or Le Margeaux for a classic French bistro experience. For casual but impeccable late night diner fare with a wine list to match, head to Nouveau Palais in Mile End. A scene as distinctive as this is also ever-changing, so keep an eye on The Montréal Buzz for up-to-the-minute dining recommendations.
Montréal has a clutch of small, smart boutique hotels running along a stretch of rue Saint Paul Ouest, including the gorgeous Le Petit Hotel at number 168, a historic 19th century building in the heart of Vieux Montréal. The 24 spacious and super chic loft-style rooms combine original full height windows, exposed brickwork and hardwood flooring with high-end retro furnishings, cloud-like beds, games consoles, cool contemporary bathrooms and amenities. Downstairs, the lobby cafe doubles up as the reception desk and transforms into an even sultrier lounging space as the night draws in.
Other solid bets include the trendy Hotel Nelligan with its rooftop terrace just a few doors away from Le Petit; the Hotel Place D’Armes complete with luxury 3,000 square feet Rainspa and views of Notre Dame Basilica from its Terrasse restaurant; the landmark Fairmont The Queen Elizabeth where John Lennon wrote ‘Give Peace a Chance’ during his 1969 bed-in with Yoko Ono, and the luxury W Montréal on the edge of the Old Port. Decent downtown options include the Comfort Inn Hotel and Suites and the Holiday Inn Montréal-Midtown – all of which can be booked through Virgin Holidays.
For more information visit www.tourisme-montréal.org or www.bonjourquebec.co.uk for both Montréal and the wider Quebec region. For the ultimate two-centre holiday encompassing both New York and Montréal, visit Virgin Holidayswho can tailor a trip to your exact requirements.
Don’t miss Part One of this post for our take on the overland route to Montréal – the Adirondack train from New York City. Virgin Atlantic operates daily direct flights to New York from London Heathrow.